The Scottish philosopher, Edmund Burke, once wrote that manners were more important than laws. Unlike the law, which “touches us but here and there, and now and then” manners are, by contrast, “what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us.” They surround and soften social reality in a way that is “constant, steady,” and “uniform.” Burke’s praise of manners must have special resonance for Canadians, since our famous reputation for politeness is not without basis in fact. But what is the relationship between manners and law in an era of legal injustice? How should manners motivate the reform of unjust laws?
A clear answer to this question was recently offered by Abby Johnson, the heroic pro-life activist, when she addressed the National March for Life last month in Ottawa; her words were a timely reminder about what is at stake in our ongoing campaign for human rights for the unborn: “There is nothing polite about abortion, and it is time for us to stop cowering to the liberal media, to your Liberal Parliament. Enough is enough.”
Johnson is, of course, correct: extremism in defense of life is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice for the unborn no virtue. Canadians certainly are polite — but civility should not impede the necessary and vital conversion of heart that we, as a nation, must undergo. For 50 years, Canada’s moral order has been in complete disarray and, to do our civic duty, we must sometimes sacrifice our civil duties. Johnson’s words bear repeating: there is nothing polite about abortion.
But what does the defense of the unborn look like in practice? Being bold, first of all, does not mean being rude. Abortion is a moral obscenity: lies amplify it and truth attenuates it. Thus, the linguistic obfuscations and prevarications that legal abortion requires are themselves social transgressions of the worst kind. When we affirm the truth — in our homes, church halls, sidewalks, and workplaces — we honour the Canadian commitments to civility and goodness in a deep and authentic way. Affirming the truth about unborn life is never inappropriate.
Indeed, just as the legal oppression of black Americans depended on social prejudice, so too does legal infanticide. And just as blacks were excluded from the human family through pseudoscientific jargon and racist epithets, so are the unborn now systematically degraded and obscured. Abortion activists have recently advocated for the use of the term “fetal pole cardiac activity” as a way to avoid any reference to an unborn child’s heartbeat. Such semantic acrobatics reflect the mental avoidance that is required for abortion to continue. To think or speak clearly about abortion is to glimpse the reality of legal prenatal infanticide in all of its horror.
Pro-lifers, therefore, should not seek confrontation but cultivate, instead, a spirit of conviction, so that we can witness to the truth when opportunities arise. We must never forget that our political opponents are victims of the very lies they repeat. For it is a tragedy to be deluded by an ideology which promotes infanticide, and we must never tire of offering truth to the misguided and forgiveness to the repentant.
Thus, authentic acts of pro-life witnessing must be rooted in the truth, grounded in prayer, and delivered with compassion, understanding, and love. Only these acts have the power to break through the confusion and fog of our political discourse and change hearts and minds. We need to be firm and unflinching in our defense of the unborn, but we must also be gentle and sympathetic towards the deceived. What, after all, is bolder than mercy? What gesture could be more provocative than outstretched, open arms? Those who have been damaged and deceived by the ideology of abortion have the potential to become the most eloquent defenders of the unborn. As a former director of a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas, Abby Johnson herself is living proof.
We have been entrusted with the truth. The reality of abortion is not a discovery reserved for daring intellectuals; the sacredness of human life is not a sophisticated insight accessible only to a select few. Rather, it is a gift, one that must be received with humility and courage, and which must be passed along to others in a spirit of stewardship. We must be bold, then, because duty to a truth we do not deserve demands that we defend it vigorously and offer it generously.
But even this duty to the truth can only be disposed with the unfailing help of He who is the Truth. When Christ observes that the “harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few,” He does so not to spur us to aimless action but to ardent prayer: “Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Mt9:38). Our pro-life efforts must spring from a similarly prayerful place and return there as well.
At times, of course, we need to imitate Christ in overturning the moneychangers’ tables; when the enemy is hidden, surreptitious, and unseen, we do God’s work by raising the alarm. At other times, however, we need to imitate Christ’s patience and mercy, so that our most motivated opponents can become, like Saul of Tarsus, our most valuable allies: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor9:22). Sometimes firm, sometimes soft, but at all times uncompromising in our defence of the unborn, we cannot aspire to be more than the conduits of God’s grace, through which our culture’s self-inflicted wounds can, at long last, begin to heal.